Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.


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E.g., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

An officer patrolling the parking area of a park just before closing discovered the defendant asleep in her car. Based on the defendant’s positioning, he was concerned there might be a medical emergency, so he knocked on the window of her car. After he knocked several times, the defendant sat up, looked at him, and opened the driver’s side door. She said she was camping in the park with her son and decided to take a nap in her car. Her speech was slurred, her eyes were bloodshot, and she was unsteady on her feet when she got out of her car. The officer also saw track marks on her arms that were consistent with heroin use. The officer asked for the defendant’s license, and, while holding it, asked for consent to search the defendant’s car and her purse, which was sitting in the front seat of the car. 

The State and defendant presented conflicting evidence about what happened next. The officer said that defendant responded, “Sure.” The defendant said the officer asked three times for permission to search her car and each time she said, “I would really rather you not.” She said she only consented to the search after the officer threatened to arrest her.

The officer searched the defendant’s purse and found several syringes in its top section. He then asked the defendant whether she was carrying anything illegal. The defendant asked whether she was going to jail. The officer told her that he would not take her to jail if she cooperated. The defendant told him she had a syringe containing heroin in the side compartment of her purse. The officer found the syringe there, along with a burnt spoon and two grams of heroin.

The defendant was not arrested that evening, but subsequently was indicted for possession of heroin and possession of drug paraphernalia. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search, which the trial court denied. She pled guilty, preserving her right to appeal. On appeal, she argued that she did not voluntarily consent to the search of her purse, and that the trial court’s findings on that issue were insufficient. The court of appeals disagreed. Rejecting the defendant’s argument to the contrary, the court explained that the question of whether consent to search was voluntary is one of fact, not law.

The trial court determined that the defendant freely gave consent to the officer to search her vehicle and her purse. This finding was supported by the officer’s testimony at the suppression hearing that he asked defendant for consent to search her car and purse, and she said, “Sure.” The court of appeals concluded, therefore, that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s consent was “freely given” was supported by competent evidence and was binding on appeal. Though the trial court failed to make a specific finding that the search did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the appellate court reached that conclusion based on the finding of fact that the defendant voluntarily consented to the search. Thus, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to suppress heroin discovered following a search of the defendant during a traffic stop. A tactical narcotics officer noticed a Lincoln sedan weaving in and out of heavy traffic at high speeds, nearly causing multiple collisions. The vehicle pulled into a Sonic Drive-In parking lot next to an unoccupied Honda. The defendant, a passenger in the Lincoln, exited the vehicle, approached the Honda, and placed his hand inside the passenger window of that vehicle. The driver of the Honda appeared and spoke with the defendant briefly. The defendant then returned to the Lincoln and the vehicle drove away. No one in the Lincoln had ordered any food. Based on his experience, the officer concluded that the defendant had participated in a drug transaction. Other officers then saw the Lincoln go to a gas station. A second officer radioed that the vehicle continued to be driven in a careless and reckless manner, at approximately 15 miles per hour over the speed limit. After the vehicle left the gas station, the first officer stopped it for reckless driving and speeding. Four other officers participated in the stop; all five officers were in uniform. The first officer approached the passenger side of the vehicle, while two others approached the driver’s side. The officer approaching the passenger side saw the defendant reach toward the floorboard. Because he did not know whether the defendant had a weapon or was trying to conceal contraband, the officer asked the defendant to show his hands. The defendant raised his hands, which were daubed in a light pink substance that the defendant stated was fabric softener. The officer ordered the defendant out of the vehicle and asked whether he was attempting to conceal something. The defendant denied doing so. The officer testified that when he asked for the defendant’s consent to search his person the defendant gave consent saying, “go ahead.” The defendant testified that he never consented to a search. When the officer proceeded to pat down the defendant he noticed a larger than normal bulge near the groin area that was not consistent with “male parts.” The officer then detained the defendant in handcuffs, believing that he had contraband on his person. The officer asked the defendant if he had anything inside of his underwear and the defendant said that he did. The officer asked the defendant if he would retrieve the item and the defendant said he would. The officer removed the handcuffs, the defendant reached into his pants and produced a plastic bag containing heroin. He was then placed under arrest.

                  The court first found that the defendant consented to the search, rejecting the defendant’s argument that his consent was not voluntary given the coercive environment fostered by the police. The defendant argued that his race is highly relevant to the determination of whether he voluntarily consented to the search because people of color will view a “request” to search by the police as an inherently coercive command, and he cited various studies in support of this claim. The court agreed that the defendant’s race may be a relevant factor in considering whether consent was voluntary. However, aside from the studies presented by the defendant, the record is devoid of any indication that the defendant’s consent in this case was involuntary. To the contrary, the circumstances show that the defendant’s consent was freely and intelligently made. Although multiple officers were present, only the first officer interacted with the defendant. When the officer approached the vehicle he asked the defendant whether he had anything illegal and the defendant said that he did not. The officer then asked if he could search the defendant’s person, to which the defendant responded “go ahead.” No other conversation occurred. There is no evidence that the defendant was unaware of his ability to refuse the request or that he feared retribution had he done so. There is no indication that the officer made threats, used harsh language, or raised his voice. There is no evidence of any physical contact with the defendant. Additionally, the officers’ firearms remain holstered throughout the encounter.

                  The court next rejected the defendant’s argument that the scope of his consent to search his person did not include a frisk of his private parts, and lacking probable cause or exigent circumstances to justify such a search, the pat down of his groin area was unconstitutional. The court concluded that because the defendant’s consent encompassed the sort of limited frisk that was performed, neither probable cause nor exigency was required to justify the search. The pat down of the defendant’s groin area was within the bounds of what a reasonable person would have expected the search to include. The officer limited his pat down to the outer layer of the defendant’s clothing. He did not reach into the defendant’s pants to search his undergarments or directly touch his groin area. Nothing about the search involved the exposure of the defendant’s privates to the officer or to the public. And there is no evidence that the groin pat down was conducted in an unreasonably offensive manner. Thus, the court concluded that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have understood his consent to include the sort of limited outer pat down that was performed here.

                  Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the officer’s continued detention of him after searching his groin area was not justified by the plain feel doctrine. During the pat down the officer felt a bulge that he determined was not consistent with male body parts and was obviously contraband. When coupled with the totality of the circumstances already observed by the officer, this discovery amounted to reasonable suspicion justifying further detention of the defendant to question him about the contents of his clothing.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his consent to search his rental vehicle was involuntary because it was given at a time when the stop had been unduly prolonged. Specifically, the defendant argued that the stop was prolonged because of questioning by the officer and the time he was detained while waiting for a second officer to arrive to assist with the search. An officer stopped the defendant for traffic violations. After routine questioning, the officer asked the defendant to step out of the vehicle and for permission to search the defendant. The defendant consented. After frisking the defendant, the officer placed the defendant in the patrol car and ran database checks on the defendant’s license. The officer continued to ask the defendant questions while waiting for the checks to finish. The officer asked the defendant if there were guns or drugs in the car and for consent to search the vehicle. The defendant said he did not want the officer to search “my shit,” meaning his property. The officer asked the defendant what property he had in the vehicle. The defendant said that his property included a bag and two hoodies. The defendant said that the officer could search the car but not his personal property. The officer then called for backup, explaining that he could not search the car without another officer present. A second officer arrived 3 to 5 minutes after the backup call and the defendant’s property was removed from the vehicle. One of the officers began to search the defendant’s vehicle. The officer brought his K-9 to the vehicle and it failed to alert to narcotics. The dog then sniffed the bag and indicated that there were narcotics inside. The case was before the court on remand from the state Supreme Court. That court had held that the initial traffic stop was valid; that the officer lawfully frisked the defendant without prolonging the stop; that the officer’s database checks on the defendant’s license did not unduly prolong the stop; and that the conversation that occurred was sufficient to form reasonable suspicion authorizing the dog sniff of the vehicle and bag. Because all parts of the stop were lawfully extended, the trial court did not err in determining that the defendant’s consent to search his vehicle was voluntary.

Because the trial court’s findings of fact do not support its conclusion that the defendant was legally seized at the time consented to a search of his person, the court reversed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to suppress contraband found on his person. Officers were conducting surveillance on a known drug house. They noticed the defendant leave the residence in a truck and return 20 minutes later. He parked his truck in the driveway and walked toward a woman in the driveway of a nearby residence. The two began yelling at each other. Thinking the confrontation was going to escalate, the officers got out of their vehicle and separated the two. One officer asked the defendant for his identification. The officer checked the defendant’s record, verifying that the defendant had no pending charges. Without returning the defendant’s identification, the officer then asked the defendant if he had any narcotics on him and the defendant replied that he did not. At the officer’s request, the defendant consented to a search of his person and vehicle. Drugs were found in his pants pocket. On appeal, the defendant argued that when the officer failed to return his identification after finding no outstanding warrants and after the initial reason for the detention was satisfied, the seizure became unlawful and the defendant’s consent was not voluntary. The court agreed. It noted that the officer failed to return the defendant’s identification before pursuing an inquiry into possession of drugs. It found that the trial court’s order failed to provide findings of fact which would give rise to a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was otherwise subject to detention. Absent a reasonable suspicion to justify further delay, retaining the defendant’s driver’s license beyond the point of satisfying the initial purpose of the detention—the escalating the conflict, checking the defendant’s identification, and verifying that he had no outstanding warrants—was unreasonable. Thus, the defendant’s consent to search his person, given during the period of unreasonable detention, was not voluntary.

In this drug case, the court held that the defendant’s consent to search his room in a rooming house was voluntarily given. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he was in custody at the time consent was given. There was no evidence that the defendant’s movements were limited by the officers during the encounter. Also, the officers did not supervise the defendant while they were in the home; rather, they simply followed the defendant to his room after he gave consent to search.

State v. Bell, 221 N.C. App. 535 (July 17, 2012)

The trial court did not err by finding that the defendant consented to a search of his residence. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court must make specific findings regarding the voluntariness of consent even when there is no conflict in the evidence on the issue. Here, there was a conflict regarding whether the defendant gave consent, not whether if given it was voluntary.

The fact that officers advised the defendant that if he did not consent to giving oral swabs and surrendering certain items of clothing they would detain him until they obtained a search warrant did not negate the defendant’s voluntary consent to the seizure of those items.

The defendant voluntarily consented to allow officers to take a saliva sample for DNA testing. The defendant was told that the sample could be used to exonerate him in ongoing investigations of break-ins and assaults on women that occurred in Charlotte in 1998. The defendant argued that because the detective failed to inform him of all of the charges that were being investigated—specifically, rape and sexual assault—his consent was involuntary. Following State v. Barkley, 144 N.C. App. 514 (2001), the court rejected this argument. The court concluded that the consent was voluntary even though the defendant did not know that the assaults were of a sexual nature and that a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have understood that the DNA could be used generally for investigative purposes.

A warrantless search of the defendant’s car was valid on grounds of consent. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his consent was invalid because the officer who procured it was not fluent in Spanish. The court noted that the defendant was non-responsive to initial questions posed in English, but that he responded when spoken to in Spanish. The officer asked simple questions about weapons or drugs and when he gestured to the car and asked to “look,” the defendant nodded in the affirmative. Although not fluent in Spanish, the officer had Spanish instruction in high school and college and the two conversed entirely in Spanish for periods of up to 30 minutes. The officer asked open ended-questions which the defendant answered appropriately. The defendant never indicated that he did not understand a question. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that his consent was invalid because the officer wore a sidearm while seeking the consent, concluding that the mere presence of a holstered sidearm does not render consent involuntary.

The evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant voluntarily consented to a search of his home. Although an officer aimed his gun at the defendant when he thought that the defendant was attempting to flee, the officer promptly lowered the gun. While the officers kicked down the door, they did not immediately handcuff the defendant. Rather, the defendant sat in his living room and conversed freely with the officers, and one officer escorted him to a neighbor’s house to obtain child care. The defendant consented to a search of his house when asked after a protective sweep was completed.

The defendant’s consent to search his residence was voluntary, even though it was induced by an officer’s false statements. After receiving information that the defendant was selling marijuana and cocaine from his apartment, an officer went to the apartment to conduct a knock and talk. The officer untruthfully told the defendant that he had conducted surveillance of the apartment, saw a lot of people coming and going, stopped their cars after they left the neighborhood, and each time recovered either marijuana or cocaine. The exchange continued and the defendant gave consent to search. Based on the totality of circumstances, the consent was voluntary.

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